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Ross Clark: The Government is selling us a pup on heat pumps

The Daily Telegraph

The Business Secretary’s admission that heat pumps are still worse than conventional boilers is a damning indictment of net zero targets

When Kwasi Kwarteng has finished his time as business secretary I suggest that he doesn’t try his hand as a secondhand car salesman – or even selling heat pumps for that matter. “I don’t think actually that heat pumps are that much worse than boilers. All I am saying is that they could be improved with a bit of investment,” was his verdict when asked by the Telegraph about the government’s commitment to have 600,000 of them installed every year in UK homes by the end of this decade. I can see him on the forecourt now: “Why not have a look at that Morris Marina over there? It’s not that much worse than the Allegro. Patch up the holes and you’ll have a half-decent motor there.”

Kwarteng’s comments on heat pumps would be fair enough it wasn’t for the fact that they are the preferred method by which we will all be heating our homes in a few years’ time. Beyond 2035 the Government wants to ban the installation of all new gas boilers, meaning that from that date the only way to heat our homes will be via heat pumps or – if the technology works out, a big if – hydrogen boilers. In other words, we had better hope that the Government is right that the cost of heat pumps – currently around £10,000 to install in a modest home – will come down as the market grows and the technology improves. 

That, by the way, is likely to only be half the bill that owners of older homes face paying. Because heat pumps work at lower water temperatures than traditional radiator central heating systems it may also be necessary to fork out another £10,000 to insulate the walls of the eight million UK homes with solid walls.  

This is the trouble with the government’s target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. While few would question the long-term desirability of moving to less-polluting forms of energy (and not just for carbon emissions), subjecting ourselves to a legally-binding target forces us into a corner. We will just have to hope that the necessary technology is invented or perfected in time for the deadline. If it isn’t, we are going to find ourselves shivering, grounded – and losing much of our industry to countries which have not been so reckless as to set themselves legally-binding targets.

At least heat pumps are an established form of technology, which work well when installed properly in well-insulated homes. Not so the breakthroughs we will need to decarbonise steel-making, cement-making, aviation and many more things. We still have no real idea whether it will be possible to decarbonise these industries on a commercial scale – and we only have 29 years to go. As for those who say we can tolerate carbon emissions from these sectors so long as we employ carbon capture and storage instead, this technology has not yet been proven on a commercial scale either.

Don’t buy the prototype; buy the redesign, goes the old adage. Being among the few countries legally to commit to the buying prototypes condemns us always to be trying to make do with technology which doesn’t yet function properly, that is far more expensive than it will be later on, or which will be swept aside in a few years’ time by a much better, totally different solution. It is as if the government in the 1980s had spent billions on installing Betamax video recorders in every home in Britain – hardly any of which would still have been in use a few years’ later.

The Government tries to sell us the benefits of being first to adopt new green technology by claiming that we will have gained the know-how to lead these industries in future. But that is not exactly what is happening. We have installed wind turbines and solar panels as enthusiastically as any country, but that doesn’t mean they are being made here. On the contrary, we are importing them, often from countries which are themselves still merrily powering their factories and homes with filthy coal.

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